Why South Korea Can and Will Beat Japan to Win the 2023/2024 Asian Cup

Third update after the Malaysia match: I take back literally everything I said in this post. Tho I guess we can keep it up to see how deluded I was.

Second update as of 1/24 7:00 PM PST: this post REALLY hasn’t aged well. Neither Korea nor Japan seem very convincing at the moment. Both teams have very clear weaknesses that have been exposed hard by a mid-high tier Middle Eastern team. Right now, purely from the group stages, Iran looks strong while Qatar is looking more like their 2019 self rather than their 2022 self. Funny how Iran Qatar and Japan are all on one side of the bracket. Which we will end up in we will find out tomorrow. I’m gonna have to rewrite this entirely if the Korea vs Japan RO16 scenario plays out…

Update as of 1/19 9:00 AM PST: This post hasn’t aged well it seems. First, there are an insane number of injuries originating from the training pitch. Hwang Hee Chan, Kim Jin Su, Lee Jae Sung, Kim Tae Hwan, Yang Hyun Jun all had to pause training at some point (or are still not fully fit) due to injuries DURING the tournament, while Kim Seung Gyu recently tore his ACL.. in training. WTF? I’m reading from people more familiar with the USMNT that this was a common occurrence in Jurgen Klinsmann’s teams. So maybe it’s not that surprising but it’s extremely detrimental to the team. But PLEASE – KNT coaching staff – NO MORE INJURIES. Our squad is already thin as it is. If we injure Lee Kang In for real (rn he’s on and off with a knock to the L knee) it’s game over.

Second, Japan lost to Iraq. We always knew that if one of either Korea or Japan gets second in the group we would see a Haniljeon RO16. And that’s what it’s looking like as Iraq will likely win against Vietnam. A Korea Japan final isn’t happening anymore.

How did Iraq pull it off? Looking at the highlights the answer is really simple – Japan still SUCKS physically. They literally played 뻥축구 to Aymen Hussein and he essentially won every aerial duel. They even struggled really hard against Vietnam’s Đình Bắc who’s only 5 foot 10. I was totally wrong about the Japanese CBs being better in the air now (there’s a bit on that below where I hypothesized that with the emergence of Tomiyasu and especially Itakura, they would be better physically and aerially but it turns out that Itakura is shockingly weak). But turns out Taniguchi, Itakura, Sugawara, and Ito, even though they’re tall, still suck at the physical aspect of the game. Also wow Zion Suzuki is a massive black hole for Japan. Every single game he makes an error that costs them a goal. Thank god we have really good GK depth (our third string Song BK is one of the best in the J League and Japanese teams routinely play Korean goalkeepers). So it turns out that the formula for beating Japan is shockingly simple – hoof the ball up forward, get a tall/physical guy to win the ball, drop it down to the midfield where your more physically commanding guys will win 90% of duels, and shoot at or cross towards Suzuki for an error to come out. Iraq truly shut down Japan with Japan only mustering 2 shots on target with some very impressive defensive cohesion and forcing Japan to just play around their defensive in the typical U shape a la Barcelona. What have we learned? Cho Gue Sung (and to a lesser extent Hwang Hee Chan who is also physically super strong) is a MUST against Japan now) and I hope he picks up a yellow vs Jordan so he can eliminate the possibility of getting a yellow against Malaysia and getting suspended. Remember that one time we beat Japan 4-1 with Kim Shin Wook scoring a hat trick? Looks like some things never change.

There are three outcomes to this now:

  1. Indonesia beats Japan and either knocks them out or the progress as third place teams. If not,
  2. We beat Japan in the RO16
  3. We lose to Japan in the RO16

I prefer #2. Japan has some key injuries right now to Mitoma and Tomiyasu and I was just thinking to myself as long as our entire team is fit, it’d be better to face them sooner rather than later. Also they look quite unconvincing right now. Of course a team of their quality could all of a sudden turn up in the RO16… but hey what did I tell you guys? Read the “weak mentality/ frequently chokes” section. It would be really funny to see them lose to Indonesia though – and if any Korean can mastermind that it would be our trickster Shin Tae Yong. Huge congrats to him for registering Indonesia’s first win at an Asian Cup against Vietnam today.

Anyway, back to the original post:

I normally don’t post things like this and don’t let my competitiveness against our greatest rivals get too drawn out, but this stupid post on Twitter pushed me to write this.

We have all been seeing a ton of love for Japanese football lately. They’re every neutral’s favorite team right now, and the guys on TifoIRL on Youtube and even Jules Koundé have been spotted wearing JFA branded sweaters. And rightfully so – they’ve posted some incredible results recently and enjoyed a fantastic World Cup with some insane results in every friendly since. I can see why so many people not super familiar with Asian football think Japan will steamroll the Asian Cup. Perhaps owning to my Korean bias, but I feel like Japan is starting to get seriously overrated, and I also feel like everyone sleeps on Korea. In this post let me fight back against the masses, the ESPN commentators, the CNBC commentators, and every English or Spanish-language based news article saying Japan are shoo ins and clear favorites win the upcoming Asian Cup. Let me convince you guys that if it comes down to a South Korea – Japan final (getting to the final is a challenge in itself with the unpredictability of football, but humor me for the sake of this article), Korea will win. Neutrals who aren’t regulars on the Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors, please comment and let me know what you think. I will try to be unbiased but obviously this is going to be biased. Of course, to be fair, I will also explore the reasons why Japan could rightfully be considered the favorites. And if I turn out to be wrong, which I very well may be, I’ll be the first to admit it. After all I’m no sports journalist or footballer – just a fan obsessed with his country’s national team.

My table of contents is as follows:

Preface (skip this part if you want)

Pro Korea:
Better players
Japan’s mentality
Better team atmosphere
Tactical matchup

Pro Japan:
Consistency and continuity
Better squad depth
Tactical matchup

Lets get started:

Preface/Context for neutrals:

For our readers not too familiar with Asian football: Korea-Japan matches, or haniljeon in Korean, are intense. At least on Korea’s end. We have serious historic grievances against Japan owing to the brutal and horrific annexation and occupation from 1910-1945 and perhaps owing to that, players across all sports take matches against Japan extremely seriously. Yes, in recent times owing to the belligerence and outward aggression from North Korea and China, Korea and Japan are warming up economically and politically, but when it comes to football, we are by far each other’s greatest regional rivals and tension run really high. In the past there have even been many players who only half jokingly said that if they lose to Japan they wouldn’t return home, or that they would give up Korean citizenship. That’s how much it means.

A lot of people in Korea are saying that this is the strongest Korean team assembled in recent memory. And they have good reason for that – the squad is good all around with some world class guys sprinkled into the mix, and everyone’s in good form. Everyone’s saying that this is the time to finally break the 64 year Asian Cup drought. And anything short of that would be a disappointment from our end. On the road to that, we will inevitably have to beat the strongest in Asia – there are a handful of very strong sides in Asia like Iran Australia Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, but Japan will be the most notable of them given their current form. We have terrible luck when it comes to the Asian Cup so winning sounds really optimistic, but on paper it does look like us and Japan, and to a slightly lesser extent the teams mentioned above, should be the favorites.

This year, there’s a lot of attention on the Asian Cup in Korea given how strong the team looks. Even though historically the Korean public never really cared about the Asian Cup and put much more emphasis on the World Cup, Olympics and Asian Games (the latter two having military exemption and medals on the line) – in fact, some of my relatives back home literally asked me “didn’t we just win the Asian Games why are we playing again?” And this year, if Korea and Japan do make it all the way to the final, the game falls on Lunar New Year. Korea Japan games bring extreme interest in both countries already, but on Lunar New Year there are predictions that a good 25-50% of the populace will be watching (since most will have the day off work). Imagine if this match fell on Korea’s independence day like the 2012 London Olympics bronze medal match almost did? The stakes would be insane. Combine the timing with 1) Korea’s 64 year trophy drought on the line and 2) a historic clash between two teams who are at the peak of their powers if not the strongest Asia has seen in recent years… there’s going to be a ton of attention.

Slightly more advanced preface and briefly touching on the Son Woong Jung interview:

I also need to say this: the Korean footballing infrastructure and the Korean football association is weaker than Japan. We all know this by now. Japan does have twice the population that we do, 3-4x the landmass, and 3-4x the economy, sure, but even accounting for that, WOW their footballing pyramid and grassroots/youth system is GOOD. Their FA isn’t corrupt and actually has a long term vision. For that, we must give credit where credit is due. They send more players to Europe. The vast majority are mediocre at best and we have many better players who stay domestic, but it’d be nice to send more players to Europe too, although the disparity has a lot to do with the fact that Japan isn’t at war and doesn’t have mandatory conscription/military service, as well as factors like better publicity, money, and marketing – Hyundai Kia LG and Samsung don’t step up for their brethren like the Japanese big companies do sadly. Zero yen transfers are a thing of the past – they are churning out good players more often than us, their players actually play professional football before age 18, and they have way more pro and high school teams. Meanwhile, Koreans BY LAW cannot play professional football before age 18 and the K League has a freaking U23 rule to encourage more playing time for young players. We need to do some serious retrospection (and maybe take out or make peace with North Korea) to fix these issues. Kim Min Jae even came out in an interview about how Japan has a better environment for football development. Honestly, it’s kind of a miracle that despite all these issues and having so many disadvantages compared to Japan domestically, we’re the ones producing world class players (no one in Japan’s history compares to Cha Bum Kun, Park Ji Sung, Son Heung Min, or Kim Min Jae) while they have none. But it would not surprise me if they start doing better than us in future World Cups to come until we make positive changes ourselves.

In fact, Son Heung Min’s dad told the media that if we beat Japan to win the Asian Cup for the first time in 64 years, we would be cheating ourselves – because their system is better and they are frankly better than us as a team. If we prematurely celebrate victory over Japan, nothing will change and we will be falling prey to short term-ism again. He is absolutely right in that regard, but I hope there will be a future where we win and STILL reform our footballing system. These things are not mutually exclusive, but it’s obvious why he has concern – knowing the KFA they will gloat about the victory and change nothing. I see a lot of Korean football news outlets and blogs hyping up this interview and dedicating long articles to it. It’s really nothing surprising or noteworthy to me… we all know that he has a point and I think the 2022 World Cup was a huge wake up call that our FA needs to get their act together. Because if we’re on Japan’s level and producing better players than them despite an awful system back home… imagine how much better we would be than them.

Pro Korea:

Korea Has Better Individual Players

Does Japan boast arguably the best CB in the world? No. Does Japan have perhaps the greatest Asian footballer of all time? No. Does Japan have two players who are in the top 6 goalscorers in any top league? No (and seriously having two Asian footballers with double digit goals going into winter break in any top league has never happened before in history). Does Japan have an extremely creative midfielder who can dribble past a defender or two with ease, reliably put in a killer through pass, and has the most accurate crosses/set pieces I’ve seen in a very long time? Nope. In just these four players – Kim Min Jae (top 5 CB in the world at the very least, if not the best), Son Heung Min (no one is better than this guy when he is on form, and right now he is ON FORM), Hwang Hee Chan (a top finisher in the EPL), and Lee Kang In (PSG’s creative engine) – we have four diverse players who no one on the Japanese team can match. And everybody’s on form for us too. Kaoru Mitoma, Kubo hit a purple patch early on but dropped off in form recently (and both are injured); Tomiyasu and Ko Itakura don’t hold a candle to Kim Min Jae (and the former is injured). Junya Ito, Ritsu Doan, and Takumi Minamino like Mitoma and Kubo are good, but not Son Heung Min good. I would take Lee Kang In – who offers a very unique dimension to our game – over ANY Japanese attacking midfielder/forward (the poor man’s Son Heung Mins) listed above. Add to the attacking lineup Cho Gue Sung, with 8 goals in 16 games for the Danish League leaders Midtjylland – this guy offers a very different dimension from your traditional AFC side forward in that he is unparalleled in the air, with the highest aerial challenge success rate in Denmark as well. If you think Ayase Ueda with just 1 goal in 13 apps in the Netherlands is better than Cho Gue Sung (which a lot of Westerners think he is), you’re just wrong. Overall, we may have on our hands the best offensive unit in the history of South Korea, probably even in the history of Asia. This side has a shot not only against Japan’s defense, but also against most teams in any given World Cup.

You may say that despite having Son Heung Min for the past several years Korea has never played very well, underperformed at the Asian Cup, and never really looked like Asia’s best side. Our coaches in the past have struggled very hard to unlock Son Heung Min’s potential – Son in the past had to do everything on the team (defend, be the creative outlet, take all set pieces) but with the emergence of Lee Kang In to take the creative midfield burden off of Son, as well as fantastic strike partners in Cho and Hwang, Son is FINALLY (in 11-12 years…) finally starting to look like his club self on the national team. Son shines when he is given freedom to attack and not when he is burdened with carrying an entire nation on his back, which has been just the case in recent years. South Korea in the past few years has always underperformed on a team level (more on that later) in comparison to the quality of names on the squad too, but with the right core players entering the scene and being on form at the right time, something is truly clicking in our team – though I will concede that we have only really tested out this working system against very low level opponents. But still, I am optimistic that we found a system that can work and actually brings our players’ talents to life, which is something very few managers in our past have been able to do.

Of course football is played with 11 men and Japan clearly have a more balanced team than us (more on that later as well) but the remainder of our squad has quality too. Hwang In Beom is his team’s best player of the season wherever he goes (and recently put up a Man of the Match performance in the Champions League against Man City). Lee Jae Sung and Hong Hyeon Seok are integral members of the team and on great form for club yet somehow don’t crack the starting XI. In a combined Japan Korea XI, only Ko Itakura, the fullbacks Ito and Sugawara, and most notably Wataru Endo (my god if only we had a good DM) would make the cut. I would rather take our starting XI over theirs – Cho > Ueda, Son and Hwang > Mitoma and Kubo/Ito, Lee Kang In > Minamino, Hwang In Beom and Lee Jae Sung> all of their CMs not named Wataru Endo, Kim Min Jae + KYK/JSH > Itakura + Tomiyasu, and Kim Seung Gyu >> Zion Suzuki (who is quite inexperiened). Our only relative weakness is DM and FB. I’ve seen some pan Asian XIs online with preposterous picks like a J League CM making it over Hwang In Beom, and the teams are almost always >50% Japan. Japanese players always get a big boost in their image to Westerners compared to any other Asian nationality (I swear everyone here in the US and in Europe as well just REALLY like Japan and anything Japanese even outside of football and sports). They’re like the England or Brazil of Asia – Kubo being worth 60 mil on transfermarkt, on the level of Kim Min Jae, above Son Heung Min, and well above Lee Kang In and Hwang Hee Chan (both only 22 mil), is preposterous. He’s good but come on he’s not Son Heung Min good nor world class like Kim. Players like Kubo are a dime a dozen – players like Lee Kang In are more rare.

Anyway, in summary, Japan has a balanced team of many good players across the pitch, but no REALLY good players. They are far from producing an individual talent on the level of Park Ji Sung, Cha Bum Kun, Heung Min Son, or Kim Min Jae. Someone truly world class who can take matters into their own hands and win you a game. When opposing teams are roughly equal in strength, it’s the individual talent that really shines through. Guys like Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi teach us how important individual brilliance is in a tournament. And in that aspect, we have Japan beat.

Japan frequently chokes, and Korea usually beats them when it matters

You may think I’m crazy to say that Japan frequently chokes considering they’re 10 matches unbeaten (against the likes of Spain and Germany) and scored like 4-6 goals in every game along the way. But let me convince you otherwise. Somehow, Japan have this habit of doing something that undoes earlier great successes. When Japan went to PKs against Croatia in the RO16 of the 2022 World Cup, I breathed a sigh of relief – I knew immediately they’d bottle it. Hilariously weak PKs in 2022, the bottling of a 2-0 lead to Belgium in 2018… and remember how they beat Germany and Spain but lost to Costa Rica? As a Korean football fanatic who follows Japan closer than any other national team (we are each others’ biggest rivals and pacing challenge after all), I can tell you that things like this, where they do really well then fail kinda hard, is pretty common place.

In my in-depth preview of Korea’s squad, system, and chances of winning, I explained this phenomenon:

Any Korean fan will know that when the stakes are high (WCQs, Olympics, Asian Games), more often than not we get the best of Japan. Why does this happen? For starters our men play with FIRE against our top rivals to whom we don’t accept losing. But more importantly, I’ve always thought that the Japanese players frequently show weakness mentally. Yes, they did beat Germany and Spain recently, but from their recent World Cup results mentioned above to their players consistently fizzling out at top leagues and never becoming world class (Kagawa lost steam, Honda never made it at a big team, and more recently Kubo and Mitoma are in bad form despite a fantastic start to the 23-24 season), something about Japan makes me suspect there’s weakness there. They also just don’t have any strong individuals who can dispatch a game or make a decisive move (though their recent results suggest they are getting better at this regard). They may have a cohesive system, but no star power. The Korean commentator/pundit who I admire the most, Lee Young Pyo (best left back in Korean history and 2002 generation legend), had this to say:

Lee Young Pyo: Normally there are several teams considered strong in Asia, such as the Saudis, Australia, and Iran, but this year it’ll certainly be us or Japan. It’s a two horse race. And I’ve always been honest- when Japan is stronger I’ve always said they’re stronger, and when we’re stronger I’ve always said we’re stronger. Right now, in 1/2024, I think we are a little bit stronger

Park Moon Sung: But they can field a B team with entirely European players. Kubo doesn’t even make their starting XI. Why do you think that?

Lee Young Pyo: In decisive situations, Korea has something Japan doesn’t have. It’s not something that I can describe.

Later in the interview: We’re better at football. This year for once is our best chance.

https://www.youtube.com/live/CUQyma5nk_s?si=59guWbyWr4fC6NiW

I really think it’s a mentality thing. Lee Young Pyo is right – Japan is scary but barring some bad luck we should be able to beat them in a final. And look at the rosters – our’s and Japan’s appears stronger, at least on paper, compared to the other teams in Asia. Yes, Japan may have gotten the better of us more often in the last few years with the last two friendlies going 3-0 in Japan’s favor, but they were just friendlies, not actual competitions. Notice how I always say we usually beat Japan “when it matters” – in the last 7 games against Japan, we won 2 and Japan won 4. All seven games were either friendlies (2) or EAFF East Asian championships (5) which both teams send B teams to anyway. Weirdly we have only met Japan twice in the Asian Cup – once in 2007 and once in 2011 – both were draws in which we won once and they won once on PKs. Considering how often Brazil and Argentina face off, or how often USA and Mexico do, there really is a lack of Asian Clasicos – please fix this AFC. We wanna play Japan more.

I also recently came across an interesting factoid – that Son Heung Min has never faced off against Japan’s senior men’s national team since the 2011 semifinal. He was 19 at the time, and it’s crazy to me that Leverkusen Son and Tottenham Son has never once played against Japan’s senior team. That 2011 semifinal was the last competitive match that we lost against them (technically we drew, since we lost on PKs). It’s been over 12 years.

One more thing: every team needs a healthy dose of luck in any competition. Think of every World Cup winning team – luck really needs to go their way. Whether it’s us, Japan, Australia, or Iran, there is always a difficult moment that every team must overcome no matter what, and there is also a good chance of having to go through a PK shootout at some point. It’s seizing the decisive moments that brings success. And in that aspect.. I think we have an edge.

https://www.taegukwarriors.com/south-korea-2023-2024-asian-cup-preview/

Ultimately, here’s what I think. I’d trust Japan more than Korea to take down a European or South American powerhouse in a World Cup. But I don’t trust Japan to 1) beat us, and to a lesser extent, 2) reliably beat the remaining Asian competition (given the brackets, most likely Saudi Arabia and Australia). There is a stronger chance of Japan being upset by one of these teams than Korea. And I think most football fans would agree with me here.

Admittedly, what we’re seeing recently isn’t the usual Japanese side that Koreans have become accustomed to over the years. Given their insane run of results recently, maybe they’ll prove this point wrong. But even recent results are telltale signs that some habits just never die.

Better team atmosphere

The Korea camp is buzzing and optimistic. Pretty much all of our players are in fantastic form and the whole “not winning the Asian Cup in 64 years despite being Asia’s strongest team historically” is a huge chip on our shoulders that everyone is very hungry to overcome. In interviews the players are united and focused more than ever. Son is in his 4th Asian Cup, and given that he plays for Tottenham, this might be his one of his very few chances to actually win something.

The Japan camp seems to be a little bit different. For example you have Kubo coming out and grumbling about the Asian Cup schedule, stating that it’s Real Sociedad who pays his wages (yeah he literally said that). Tomiyasu, Endo, and several other Japanese players and even their club coaches like Jurgen Klopp or de Zerbi have also spoken out about how it sucks that the Asian Cup is in January. This has seemingly caused some negative stirrings in the Japanese media. Add to that the list of injuries – Mitoma isn’t going to feature until mid-February at best, Kubo just got injured before the tournament (albeit a minor one), Itakura (best defender) is just coming back from injury, and Tomiyasu (2nd best defender) is still injured though may be coming back very soon. Oh and the fact that Kubo and Mitoma are not in their best form right now despite a purple patch earlier in the season (I said this earlier didn’t I) isn’t going in their favor either.

These little things might actually really matter when it comes a competition. I don’t even think the Japanese players would be that disappointed if they get to return to their clubs earlier. But maybe they are indeed passionate about the competition and maybe they’ll turn the mood around. Maybe I’m just biased based on what the media is reporting. Idk.

Tactical matchup

The Premier League goalscoring table looks like this right now.

We literally have two players who are frankly world class in their ability to run behind a defense and score. This is new in Korean football. In Son we have two equally powerful howitzers ready to score given any space in front of them – a world class finisher. In Hwang we have someone who is so good at those behind the defense runs, the off the ball movement, the finishing – all things we can exploit. Japan is the kind of team that WILL probably beat us in midfield dominance, and if the way they play against near peers or weaker Asian teams hold, they will almost certainly play with a pretty high line. Maybe they won’t do this against us given the form of our incredible forwards, but with more than 50% possession they very well will leave space in the back. This is where Lee Kang In with his characteristic killer through passes could unleash Hwang or Son – two world class counterattackers – into space.

I have long held that against a team like Japan maybe we should play with Son and Hwang up top, without Cho. Cho is fantastic and on form, and of course offers a very different dimension compared to the other attackers. He’s strong physically and a beast in the air. Japanese CBs, historically, have been slow and weak in the air. However, the emergence of Ko Itakura and to a lesser extent, Takehiro Tomiyasu, negates this assertion. I actually don’t think Cho Gue Sung would be the most effective against Itakura and Tomiyasu who are all around his height and (at least Itakura is) are also very good in the air. Cho I think is better suited to breaking down the smaller turtling Asian teams – and against everyone else he must start. But Japan is a different matchup altogether, and we have to take full advantage of Hwang and Son’s insane off the ball movement, finishing, speed, and how they combine so well together (e.g. the goal against Portugal). Oh and both play up top for their clubs, and doing it at a top top level. The presence of Hwang and Son lurking high up the pitch would command the full attention of guys like Itakura, Tomiyasu, and Endo and prevent them from freely running up to contribute to the attack. They better double mark them too – I can totally envision a scenario where Hwang makes a run into the box, a defender follows him, and Son either successfully makes the through pass or exploits the space to curl one into the net. And in Cho’s absence we get to utilize Lee Jae Sung – someone so important to the team but finding himself not in the XI these days. Lee Jae Sung would bring midfield balance and much more defensive coverage as well, crucial against a team like Japan that would otherwise probably dominate our midfield.

I am no tactician by any means, but a back four, supported by a primarily defensively minded 3-man midfield save for Hwang In Beom, Lee Kang In as the #10/creative outlet, and Hwang/Son up top would be the best way to play against Japan, where we will need more cover than usual out wide to account for their talent there from their wingers and overlapping fullbacks. Our usual 4-4-2 seems a little thin in the middle. But the team and the coaching staff know better than me. We will see if we switch up tactics at all this tournament.

Better bracket?

Super minor point but if things go as predicted in the group stages (in Asia it almost always does because of the huge gulf between teams’ skill levels in the group stages – upsets only really happen in the knockouts), Japan faces Australia and Saudi Arabia while we face Iran and either Qatar/Uzbekistan. I’d rather take our side of the bracket although I’m very wary of Uzbekistan who can give any team in Asia trouble. I’ll take our odds of even making it to the finals over Japan, knowing that it’ll be difficult for both.

Now I have to discuss reasons for which we might not win in a final against Japan

Continuity and Consistency

An obvious point here, but of course Japan has had a much more impressive post-2022 World Cup. They’re keeping their manager who has been on board since 2018. We of course have had a rockier start to 2023 (Klinsmann admitted this himself) owing to a new coach. Look at these recent results – it’s insane.

Not only has Japan been more consistent, they have always been the better organized team and the better organized Football Association while the Korean Football Association is always our downfall, with zero long term vision, corruption allegations, and an awful merry go round of managers who until just now have never been able to make use of one of the best players in the world. Japan is just a better team unit. The players have a philosophy, a play style, an identity that’s uniquely Japanese and even ingrained into the J League. Their national team is tactically pretty fluid (pass and move intricately against Asian teams, counter rapidly against stronger teams) – they can beat any level of team as evidenced by the above image. For that, I am jealous. And this is probably the single greatest reason why people are favoring Japan to win over Korea. Because football is played with 11 men. If they can beat a Germany (in downfall admittedly) by 4 goals, they can probably put 4 goals past us unless we get our game plan just right. Speaking of which…

Japan’s tactical advantage: Kim Min Jae can’t defend alone

If we had four world class defenders, I would very confidently say we are the favorites. But we do not. They’re good, but not European good. They are sufficient against most Asian sides, but I worry about Japan who have guys with incredible pace and skill out wide, supplemented by great fullbacks. The weak spots on our team are fullbacks and defensive mid – these are the two spots where Japan beats us, but not by much. It’s no secret that Lee Ki Je and Seol Young Woo, and pretty much all our other fullbacks in the K League, are not so great at the defending aspect of the game (great crossers and contribute offensively, but defensively a bit suspect). As the Japanese may wince at an in form Son Heung Min and Hwang Hee Chan running at them, I wince at the prospect of Junya Ito vs Lee Ki Je, and to a lesser extent, Mitoma or Doan vs Seol Young Woo. But the good thing is a defense can be organized into shape, we have extremely industrious midfielders who can provide cover, and Kim Min Jae alone covers the space that two defenders would – we keep Kim Min Jae on the left rather than moving him on the right to make way for Kim Young Kwon (our second best CB arguably) specifically so he can cover for our LB (and also play in his preferred side).

Another issue for us: if the recent mickey mouse tournaments and friendlies are any indication, they will dominate our midfield. And we have no good defensive midfielder while they boast a pretty damn good one who covers for their not as stellar CM pool. How do we respond? Do we do what I said earlier, moving Lee Jae Sung into midfield for defensive balance? Do we switch to a three back? Or do we just pack the midfield and try to beat them at their own game, which we’re capable of doing if we sacrifice other things? I don’t know, and I hope Klinsmann and his staff (probably mostly the staff?) will start thinking about this conundrum soon.

Squad depth

Injuries to our key attacking units could spell disaster for us. We do not have a B team comparable to our A team. We saw this on display against Iraq. Japan on the other hand has quality players spread more evenly across the park. Their best attackers Kubo and Mitoma are injured but Ritsu Doan, Junya Ito are ready to take up the mantle – and even their B team is comprised mostly of European based players and can destroy weaker Asian teams 5-0. So a huge advantage for them is that injuries and suspensions from yellows/reds mean much less to them than it does for us. If we stay healthy and red card free though, this point becomes moot. After all, we have a more than sufficient bench options and football is only played with 11-16 men (wow I keep saying this in different contexts).

Closing remarks:

Is this all just copium given Japan’s recent successes? Perhaps. Are they objectively the favorites right now? Yeah, given their recent results, but results and being a favorite doesn’t mean you will win. I think I’ve given some valid reasons to suggest that head on, we can beat Japan. It’d be a spectacular match for sure – two Asian teams who have developed so much in the past two decades duking it out at the height of their powers, both in somewhat of a golden generation. They say they’re historically at their strongest, so do we – so let’s duke it out on the field. First things first though – let’s get to the final first. It’s not easy and football is unpredictable. Given our weirdly terrible track record at the Asian Cup historically, getting to the final is easier said than done, but this year, perhaps things will be different. And eventually let’s reform our football system and catch up to Japan – we can all admit that we have work to do and that they are better in that regard.

About Jinseok 259 Articles
Diehard Korean football fan. https://www.taegukwarriors.com/jinseoks-story/

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      • HIB is very poor at defending. LJS and HHS maybe a little bit better – if you look at their heat maps for their clubs they are quite defensive despite being listed as attacking mids – but even then they’re not gonna cut it on the world stage as DMs

  1. I appreciate the author fleshing out complexity via his analysis but at the end of the day, I think it is mind boggingly clear the JFA is way more robust and advanced in their process approach. Japan is absolutely developing some of the most technically able players on the ball in the world. Yes maybe they don’t have their Sonny or KMJ, but their wide players at the last WC physically displaced the ball from more physical german/spanish players, their wide backs were not as intimidated as ours, their GKer was better and they have MF players like Wataru Endo who can receive a pass with a defender on his back, pivot, retain the ball and make a progressive pass. They also demonstrated the last WC they can play without the ball like in the Spain game, they don’t panic when they have 25% possession because now they have players with the physicality to dislodge and create turnovers, and can counter attack with speed/aggression. Since 2002, they made the knockouts in 2 WC’s with 2 wins in the GS, we have never gotten 2 wins in a group outside Korea. We lost to a very subpar Ghana team 3-2 in Qatar, Japan beat Germany/Spain in the group. We allowed 4 goals to Brazil in like 20 mins in the 1st half R16, it was a joke. I feel what Japan doesn’t have is that extreme hyper competitive edge that SA/Euro players have playing the game they feel in their bones but it will come for them. Their process is quite good, I mean it’s to the point where if they play the US or Canada they just hammer them in friendlies with a B team, they are one of the best teams in the world outside UEFA or CONMEBOL. Us? We have a long way to go to mold a unit greater than the sum of it’s parts. The KFA is nowhere near the commitment/process driven org like the JFA. Also notice the J league signed a pretty good Intl TV deal recently, the K league is not ready for that. We have made ever WC since 1986 but gotten to the R16 3x only, we’re very good within the AFC but globally, we are just a participant that fills a slot. Japan I feel will keep growing.

    • I think we will get better too, don’t get me wrong. But if the J League monetizes their league better and sticks with the process development and grass roots approach, they will not be caught in Asia and maybe in 30 years, will be one of the top talent producing nations on the planet. I can’t even remotely think of any Korean manager doing the job Moriyasu did at Qatar 2022.

  2. I also feel there is a lot of cultural homogenous immaturity within our culture in general. Like we don’t have a Korean manager that can perform on the world stage like Moriyasu with Japan, a lot of the K league managers suck. The reason why I say this is even though Bento spent 4 years developing the national team with modernity, we opt to pick Klinsmann as successor rather than building off Bento and promoting Sergio Costa. I mean Portugal pound for pound is the best performing soccer country in the world player wise and they also produce an insane amount of coaches. Why not harness the portuguese network we had and promote from within to expand our potential in knowledge of the game? This is something Japan doesn’t have to worry about, they have options to stay domestic or hire abroad. Because, they built well bottom up.

  3. Dude after all this I just hope we get a Haniljeon final. It would seriously be epic.

    It’d also be low key hilarious if after all this buildup we both got knocked out before the final.

    I mean I wouldn’t put it past us. The same Qatar team that sucked at the WC knocked us both out last time.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Quick Preview: South Korea vs Jordan 2023 Asian Cup Group Stage | Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors
  2. South Korea's AFC Asian Cup So Far: Pros/Cons, Semifinal vs Jordan Preview, and Quick Comment on Iran vs. Japan | Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors

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